Wednesday, March 04, 2009

North of Beautiful

Headley, Justina Chen. 2009. North of Beautiful. Little Brown. 373 pages.

"Not to brag or anything, but if you saw me from behind, you'd probably think I was perfect. I'm tall, but not too tall, with a ballerina's long legs and longish neck. My hair is naturally platinum blond, the kind that curls when I want it to and cascades behind my back in one sleek line when I don't. While my face couldn't launch a thousand ships, it has the power to make any stranger whip around for a second look. Trust me, this mixture of curiosity and revulsion is nothing Helen of Troy would ever have encountered."

If at any point during the review you think I'm turning negative, I want you to repeat to yourself, Becky really does like this book. Why the weird warning? I have a feeling this will be one of the hardest reviews I've done in a while. Because the narrator, Terra, falls into the me-not-me category. No, I'm not perfect from any angle whatsoever. No, I don't have a passion for maps, collages, or geocaching. But there are elements here and there of her story that are all-too-real to me.

Terra has a birthmark--in her case a port wine stain--on half of her face. Something that she almost always, always covers up by her "geologic strata" of make-up. But even if most can't see it, some--many--still know it's there. And she hasn't always been able to cover it her entire life, so she's had her fair share of well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning comments, stares, points, and teases. From the "what's that on your face," and the "have you tried..." to the "you should have laser surgery." And for the record she has. Terra has tried--on multiple occasions through the years--a variety of laser treatments. So far in her life (is sixteen, seventeen, eighteen???) none of the treatments have lightened least not much.

Especially bristling, the conversation she has with a teacher that shoves a pamphlet at her, encourages her to have laser surgery, and says, "Do you realize what this could mean? Your entire life could change" (12).

Or perhaps on equal footing is the comment by her boyfriend, "Why not fix your face?" (17) Not that she's in the habit of going around without make-up covering it around him. Still the whole idea that you have "to fix your face" to be worthy, to be normal, to be beautiful rubs me the wrong way.

Terra's life is far from perfect. And her birthmark is only a surface problem. Much deeper is her problematic home life. We've got a father who's only two or three degrees removed from evil incarnate--the degrees of separation being he's not sexually abusive or physically abusive. He's never killed anyone physically. But he's a joy-killer, a spirit-killer alright. His abuse is verbal, mental, emotional, psychological. There's no love, joy, peace in her home. He is negative 100% of the time. 24/7 he is shown to be a jerk. I'm not denying the fact that there aren't jerks in the world who are jerks 24/7. But it would have been more realistic, more authentic, to flesh the father out a bit more. No human is just one trait. Yes, fathers can be jerkish. Yes, some can be mostly jerkish. But it would be more likely that as jerky as he is, as mean as he is at times, there would be, could be moments where he's not a jerk. Moments where he shows a different side. I don't know if this flaw is in the eyes of the narrator--Terra, it is awfully convenient at any age to just brush her father off as evil incarnate and miss what little good there may be--or if it is a flaw of the author, her inability to flesh the character out and make him multidimensional. The mother--at least in the beginning--is one dimensional as well. If her father is stereotypically jerky, her mother is stereotypically a doormat. A non-entity that accepts garbage with welcome arms. She behaves--quite authentically in many ways--by turning to food for comfort. Terra as the sole child at home is between a rock and a hard place. She can't stop her father from abusing her mother--with words sharp as daggers; she can't stop her father from abusing her the same way. She can't protect her mother; her mother can't protect her. Neither try that hard to do so.

And such there life might have gone on...if not for one act of defiance leading them down a very different road. Despite the fact that her father is dead-set against trying laser surgery...again...and despite the fact that Terra herself is the biggest skeptic there is, Terra and her mother, Lois, travel to Seattle during Christmas vacation to have laser surgery, a supposedly "new" treatment that will make a difference. Supposedly. The details of the laser treatment are laid out for the reader. Something you probably won't find in other books of its kind. But that isn't what changes their fates. No. It's what happens after.

On the way home, the two are in a car accident. No, no one is hurt. But--and here is where you'll have to suspend your disbelief a bit--the people in the other car are life-changers: Jacob, an adopted Chinese teen guy who'd had a cleft lip and was at the moment in his goth phase, and his mother, a wonder-woman of sorts. From that day, from that meeting, no one will be the same.

The book is complex--so many layers of life, of interests, of passions, of intense relationships. And life is complex. So it's authentic enough there. And the plot--in its details--isn't typical at all. Terra's mother and Jacob's mother are two of the main characters of the book. How often does one mom--let alone two moms--play an important role in book? I'd dare say that Terra's relationship with her parents outweigh considerably her relationship with her "best" friend, Karin, and her boyfriend, Eric. Both are negligible in importance; both make just the barest of appearances in the book.

Within the book, Terra is on a journey of self-discovery. She doesn't know who she is--really. She doesn't know how she really and truly feels about herself. If her birthmark defines her in a good or bad way. If her birthmark makes her ugly. If her birthmark is something that she should be ashamed of. If she is beautiful. If she is worthy of love. Terra doesn't like to be vulnerable around her boyfriend, around her classmates. She's not comfortable being herself. This is Terra's journey to getting to a place where she can just be. And the reader is along for the ride. And it's a wonderfully authentic journey.

Terra's developing relationship with Jacob--despite the fact that she technically has a boyfriend even if he is a lame one that rarely gets any scenes in the book--is a definite plus to the book. Their friendship, their honesty, their being vulnerable with one's a refreshing teen romance. One that shows intimacy isn't about touching body parts. I enjoyed the romance of this one.

As someone with a birthmark--on her face--who went through five years of laser treatment (one year while I was in high school; the rest while I was in college)--though not a port wine stain--I wanted to connect with Terra. I wanted to see for myself if a fictional character could mirror how it felt to have a birthmark. How it felt for it to be the first--and sometimes the only--thing that people noticed about you. How it felt to be someone who struggled not only with their esteem, not just with their body image, but how it effected them body and soul. If you make it where it has to be "fixed" or "covered" or "hidden" then you're in a way saying that you're not worthy enough as you are, that there was/is something wrong with who you are, that you need to be "fixed" to be "normal," to be "whole." That you're broken. If you attach shame to it, then you take the side of your accusers. They have every reason to point, laugh, stare, be rude, there's something wrong with me. You're not good enough. But on other hand, it's hard to love yourself when you're different. When you're hearing the messages that you should look like everyone else. That you should do anything and everything within your power to look like someone else's definition of beautiful. It's drummed into you that to be confident, to be beautiful, you have to fight nature.

There were elements that felt right--that felt true. And there are instances in the book that get it right. Though Terra's experiences only occasionally mirrored my own--despite her many problems, I felt she had it better off. Which is just strange that you want a fictional heroine to suffer more just so she could mirror your own experiences more closely. See, I told you this was a bizarre review!

By the way, if you're a teacher or a counselor, here's something you should never, ever say to a person with a birthmark going through laser treatment..."what are you going to do when you're normal." Because I promise you that even twelve or thirteen years later, they'll still have not forgiven you for your rudeness cloaked as cluelessness.

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews
If you're reading this post on another site, or another feed, the content has been stolen.


Ana S. said...

I loved your review, Becky. I really did.

di said...

Great review! So much depth. Love it.

Erika Powell said...

i struggled to write a review for this book too. it is complex and amazing and i loved every second of it.

Laura H said...

Man, Becky that was deep. Thanks for sharing your experience. Great review. I hope I can find this book at the library.

Stephanie said...

Totally loved your review. This book is going on my TBR list. Thanks!

By the way - I would love for these teachers who use the word "normal" to explain that to the rest of us! What is normal for one, is not for all.